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South Asia water: An overview

: The great civilizations of the world have evolved around water and South Asia is no exception. In South Asia, water encompasses the cultural, social, economic and political fabric in the lives of some 1.5 billion people. Water resource is key to agriculture, hydropower, and to sustain the aquatic environment. The region is endowed with great rivers that are the lifelines of the regional economy.

Heavy reliance on the monsoons

The region’s economy and predominantly rural livelihoods heavily depend on the timely arrival and performance of the monsoons. The monsoon is the most significant climate event: it carries over 70 percent of the region’s annual precipitation in only four months. Because of the dominance of the monsoons, the region’s climate exhibits the highest seasonal concentration and variability of rainfall in the world.

The annual average water availability in South Asia appears to meet current consumption of the population. However, averages conceal extreme seasonal and distributional patterns. Water availability is under threat both from variability in supplies and growing demands.

To compound the problems of scarcity, newer stresses associated with rapid economic growth are adding additional strains on South Asia’s water resources. Rapid industrialization increases water demands, pollution and unsustainable use of natural resources, including groundwater and surface water bodies.

Natural scarcity and a highly variable hydrology

Scarcity and variability have long been key attributes of the region’s distinct hydrological environment. The natural legacy of water in continental South Asia is defined by two unique features: the Asian monsoon and the Himalayan mountain range.

The monsoon causes large intra-annual variation in rainfall, with most precipitation falling during just a few weeks. The monsoon is also associated with large inter-annual variability, leaving the population vulnerable to severe flood and drought shocks. The 2007 monsoon season in India alone resulted in 3,500 lives lost, 57 million people affected and 64,000 of cropland destroyed.

The Himalayan mountain range plays a key role in the hydrological environment: mountains block the northerly push of the monsoon confining it to the sub-continent and giving rise to the great river systems of the Indus and the Ganges-Brahmaputra; glaciers provide storage that enables the flow of perennial rivers; and sediment transported down to the floodplains replenishes fertile soils.

This nourishes the large basins of northern South Asia, but also channels floods to riparian communities and diverts water away from the drought-prone areas beyond. These unique features of South Asia make for a variable climate, one that has always forced societies to cope with extreme scarcity, sudden bounty, and the inability to store adequate quantities of water to guarantee supply.

Growth and development

Booming national populations with rising demand levels compete for the same water resources leading to a decrease in per capita and per hectare availability. This has increased conflicts over water at all scales from the farm to national and international levels. Rapid industrialization increases pollution and the attrition of natural resources, including groundwater and surface water bodies.

Impacts of climate change

Climate change in South Asia is predicted to amplify current levels of hydrological variability, and may fundamentally change some hydrological systems. The glaciers of the Himalayas, the largest body of ice outside the polar regions, provide critical water storage and dry season base flows to river basins. Some of the glaciers are retreating more rapidly than those in any other major mountain range.

Moreover, they form a ‘white spot’ (‘no data’) in the 2007 report of the Inter governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) due to inadequate observation networks and lack of regional cooperation.

Climate change predictions indicate that there could be extremely serious implications for temporal and spatial changes in water availability in the floodplains of these great rivers. These new stresses will have a major impact on water resources management.

Compounded by weak policy, regulatory, and management institutions, the total effect on the region’s water resources is even worse. Age-old coping strategies developed by South Asia’s hydraulic societies are now cracking under the weight of the newer stresses.

Today, the fate of water in South Asia hangs precariously in the balance in a scenario that is both alarming and distinctly different from the natural variability that has always characterized water in the region.

(Source: World Bank)

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